B. B. Warfield's Cautions on the Parable of the Prodigal

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It's seems that our Lord's "Parable of the Prodigal Son" is highly in vogue these days.  On the surface, this is a good thing, because what more beautiful message is there than that of this Father's lavish love?  But those who are made wary by the history of theology will find their eye-brows raised with at least some concern.  This is sad, but necessary.  I confess that I have not read Tim Keller (who I trust in this matter) or heard Brian McLaren (who I do not trust on this matter, or practically any other).  It is the case, however, that history offers a warning about the way some will seize on this parable to minimize or remove the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement from the gospel, since the parable makes no mention of the Father requiring a sacrifice in order to receive his prodigal son with forgiving love.  For this reason, I confess to being a little concerned about the sub-title of Keller's book, "Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith."  While I do not believe that Tim Keller would have any such intention, I would be troubled to see the cross absented from the heart of the gospel, since the Bible teaches that "in this is love... that [God] loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn. 4:10).  I suspect that I will be encouraged by Tim Keller's treatment of God's love and I look forward to reading it.  But I confess to worrying about the use of this parable in other quarters.  As to these matters, I find the sage comments of B. B. Warfield to be timely:

"The exaggerated estimate which has been put upon this parable has borne bitter fruit in the world.  Beginning with an effort to read into it all the Gospel, or at least the essence of the Gospel, it has ended by reading out of the Gospel all that is not in the parable.  And thus this parable, the vehicle of a priceless message, has been transformed into the instrument of a great wrong.  The worst things are often the corruption of the best: and the attempt to make the parable of the lost son the norm of the Gospel has resulted, I will not say merely in the curtailment of the Gospel, I will say rather in the evisceration of the Gospel...

"We observe, then, in the first place, that there is no atonement in this parable.  And indeed it is precisely because there is no atonement in this parable that it has been seized upon by the modern tendency to which we have alluded, as the norm of the only Christianity it will profess." (B. B. Warfield, The Savior of the World, pp. 5-7).

As Warfield continues, he points out that in this parable there is also no Christ, who mediates between lost Son and loving Father, no gospel mission to appeal to the prodigal son to repent and return, and no Holy Spirit to bring effectual grace and regenerate the lost.  "If this parable is to constitute our Christianity, then our Christianity must do without these things." (p. 9).   

Does this mean we should shun so great and precious a portion of God's Word as this parable?  Of course not.  And I fervently look forward to reading Tim Keller's book.  But it does mean that we should insist that this passage be handled responsibly, in light of the whole counsel of God and also in light of the proper interpretation of this kind of biblical material (i.e. Jesus' parables).  What does Warfield advise? "The only safe course is strictly to confine ourselves to the lesson the parable was framed to teach" (p. 15).  What is that lesson?  As usual, the context gives the answer: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them'" (Lk. 15:1-2).  Of course, the parable tells us glorious things about God's love and the way repentance leads quickly to restoration with our loving heavenly Father.  But the point of the parable is not to advance an atonement-less, Christless, Holy Spirit-less gospel, but to rebuke the spirit of the older brother that is so common among us.  If I have heard correctly, this is the emphasis Tim Keller gives to the story.

Sorry to be so negative with respect to so wonderful a Bible passage.  I strongly doubt that any warning needs to be given about Tim Keller's treatment of this parable.  But given the current ferocity of the assault on the doctrine of the atonement from the likes of Brian McLaren, the warning seems to be timely.

Posted October 10, 2008 @ 1:59 PM by Rick Phillips
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